As a middle-class white British man, it’s impossible for me to understand the effects of racism. I can grasp the concepts in general terms, but I’ve never had to live with any stigma in my life and never been the subject of prejudice.
The world has moved on from when I was a child, when casual racism was accepted and I had little understanding of the power words and labels can have. I have never considered myself racist, yet as I grow older I can see I do have some prejudices, even if I’d rather pretend that I didn’t. Certainly, when I was younger the prevailing attitudes rubbed off on me. Children follow the example they are set.
How then to talk to my children about race? Looking at them and their attitudes, I can see that, at the moment, they don’t notice any differences between their friends. I am reminded of the video below when they talk about the other children in their lives.
Yet, my family is growing up in a society that seems to be increasingly polarized on matters like race and immigration. It’s my perception (and I may be completely wrong about this, from up here in my ivory tower) that casual racism isn’t as prevalent in the UK as it was 30 years ago. Overt racism, however, is on the increase. Emboldened by the current climate of mistrust, and an inflammatory media, prejudice is rising to the surface of society and people feel emboldened to speak and act out their prejudices.
It’s up to us as parents to show the right behavior, model the correct language, and speak out when we see racist attitudes. Attitudes inflamed by the media, and sadly, our politicians. Whilst blatant racism is easy to spot, more subtle forms may go unnoticed by white parents, such as myself, because it’s so far outside of our experience. Certainly, I cannot comment on the more subtle effects racism can have in the long term. How passive racism gradually wears down those who live with it every day. How then, can I explain this multi-faceted and nuanced problem to my children?
That’s where books like What Is Race? come in.
What is What Is Race?
What Is Race? is a short book that deals with race and how to talk about it. It acknowledges the difficulty of talking about race and aims to cut through that, by showing readers what racism is and how they can challenge it.
It’s filled with personal accounts that demonstrate how racism manifests and the impact it can have. Written by Claire Heuchan, and Nikesh Shukla (who wrote the excellent Run, Riot), and published by Wayland Books, the book is reminiscent of something you might find in the school library (as you would many Wayland books). The text and photos are presented in a very traditional, perpendicular fashion.
Nevertheless, unlike many books designed for schools, What Is Race? is a useful book to have at home too. It’s accessible and likely to spark many conversations. The book is aimed at children aged around ten upwards. Being a book published in the UK, its examples are predominantly taken from UK life. The book is still relevant globally, but its cultural references center on Great Britain.
What Is Race? doesn’t shy away from the big issues. One of its pages is entitled “The Murder of Stephen Lawrence.” The authors haven’t taken any shortcuts in examining their subject.
The book is filled with explanations of concepts around race and racism, which are interspersed with personal testimonials. Moving through the book it asks:
- What is race?
- Who are racists?
- Why does skin color matter?
- How far have we come?
- How does it feel to experience racism?
- How can you challenge racism?
- Race and Racism in history.
- Skin Colour and Stereotypes.
- Race and Representation.
- Race and Rights. This section contains four important definitions: Direct discrimination, indirect discrimination, harassment, and victimization.
- How we can “unlearn” racism.
At the end of the book, there is a glossary, index, and some useful websites and books with further information about the subject, and where you can find help if you wish to report racist behavior (Again, this information is UK focused).
Why Read What Is Race?
The book is an excellent introduction to one of the most divisive and potentially explosive subjects children and adults have to deal with. It seems to me that overt racist bullying is allowed to propagate because it’s difficult to have a conversation on the subject. Many white people feel afraid to talk about it (I know I felt far more apprehensive about writing this Word Wednesday than I have any of the others), so it’s easier not to engage. This leaves the airwaves open to those who don’t care if they cause offense and sensible discourse is shouted down.
Books like What Is Race? enable understanding of the subject, and enables people to overcome their fear of saying the wrong thing. Or more accurately, help people like me understand how not to say the wrong thing, or if I do, how to learn from my mistakes. I firmly believe that few things in the world can be solved without meaningful dialogue (it’s possibly why I talk so much) and books like What Is Race? promote exactly that.
There is no better way to educate our children on the perniciousness of racism than trying to help them see things from the other person’s point of view. I will never be able to impart to my children what it is like to be on the end of racist slur or watch people fidget uncomfortably when I sit near them in a restaurant, but testimonies from people like Nikesh Shukla and Claire Heuchan can.
If you enjoyed this post do check out my other Word Wednesday posts, here.
Disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for review.